Welcome to my stop on the Doll House blog tour. I’m excited to shared an excerpt of the book with you!
High atop a hill in the centre of Sandalwood village, visible from every twist and turn that John’s car took, there stood a decrepit, gothic building. With the fading twilight behind it the house looked like something where the Addams Family would live, or the home of Norman Bates. It was tall, dark and so obviously spooky Ben thought it could have been snatched from the opening credits of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. It was easy to imagine a flutter of black bats or a white-sheet ghost flapping from the high-arched doorway or one of the sinister upper windows. Ben didn’t want to be intrigued but he couldn’t help wonder about the building.
“Where are you taking me?”
“You sound like a fucking kidnap victim,” John yawned.
“It worries me that you know what kidnap victims sound like. Where are you taking me?”
“I told you where I’m taking you,” John spoke with weary resignation. “For the next three months I’ll be giving you what every lazy writer needs. I’m putting you in my personal country cottage. You’ll have the solitude and the isolation necessary to finish your latest novel. I’m taking you back to your writing career.”
Ben stared out of the window. He scowled at the sign saying WELCOME TO SANDALWOOD. They drove past a cemetery-fringed churchyard, a police station and a pub. He saw a library and a pair of shops that were closed at this late hour of a Sunday evening. The houses they passed, all yellow stone beneath slick slate roofs, were packed tight together and lurked behind prettily floral front gardens. As the darkness took hold, the streets were lit by the archaic yellow glow of mock-Victorian streetlamps. Ben thought it was the sort of location that would likely have village fetes, a secret history of animal sacrifice and some sort of deserved reputation for bestiality or inbreeding. Or maybe both.
“I don’t want solitude and isolation,” Ben grumbled. “I want alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and maybe some class B drugs. Those are the things that help me write.”
“Yeah,” John agreed. “You’ve had those for the last year and we’re still no closer to seeing the final book in your trilogy, are we?”
Ben continued to stare out of the window. Sandalwood looked like it was in the middle of nowhere. He could see none of the familiar signs he would have expected telling him there was either a bank, a McDonalds, an ASDA or a Carphone Warehouse lurking on the high street. He was beginning to suspect that the two shops, the library and the police station might well have been all of Sandalwood’s high street. It was, he thought, something akin to third world deprivation. With his heart racing he peered more furiously out of the window and tried to see something that suggested they were still in the twenty-first century.
“Where is this place?”
“This is Sandalwood,” John said. “You head up north for a couple of hours past Birmingham and then you turn left for a bit. What does it matter where it is?”
Ben shrugged. He stopped himself from saying that it mattered if he was going to try and escape. He was still staring out of the window but the light had faded so much now he was treated only to glimpses of his own unkempt reflection.
There was a week-old beard dirtying his jaw. His hair was an untidy tangle beneath the cowl of his oversized hoodie. His eyes were hidden in deep shadows borne from too many late nights and too much excess. With high cheekbones and an unlined brow it had once been a handsome face but now it looked like the reflection of an ailing party animal.
An ailing party animal that needed a kindly vet to end its suffering.
He pushed that thought aside. Not only was it depressing but it was a cheesily extended metaphor that made no sense.
John pulled the car off the road and onto a driveway. to a halt outside a pair of tall, imposing gates. He stepped out of the vehicle and stood illuminated in the headlights as he fumbled with a lock and chain. He was an angular man: tall and slender and unnatural in his gait. In his corduroy slacks, sports jacket and a Harris Tweed flat cap, he looked like a man who knew how to dress for the countryside even if the environment seemed not quite right for him.
The Daimler’s engine continued to purr softly.
The chill of the encroaching night crept into the vehicle and began to caress Ben’s cheeks and hands. He hadn’t realised how warm and comfortable the journey so far had been and the sinister chill of the evening was unnerving.
This is your last chance, Ben thought to himself. If you want to get back to the city, and escape from this three-month exile to the middle-of-fucking-nowhere, this is your last opportunity to steal John’s car and drive away from here.
He didn’t act on the idea.
He had nowhere to go and no reason to escape. If he didn’t write the final book in the trilogy he knew he could give up on any hope of ever writing again for publication. If he stole his agent’s car it would likely put an end to their working relationship and Ben knew, afterwards, he would be lucky to be left with the option to self-publish on Amazon.
John climbed back into the car, shivering a little as he settled himself into the driver’s seat. “It’s nippy out there,” he grumbled. He slammed the door shut and then drove the car slowly up the driveway. “I’m hoping it will be warmer in the house.”
Overhanging trees made the route a dark tunnel. Ben could hear the scratch of talon-like branches snatching at the paintwork of the car. The tyres crunched at loose gravel. Noisy shards of the road were ripped from the ground and spat up at the metalwork beneath his feet.
“You’ve got property with a driveway?” Ben muttered. “You must be loaded.”
John laughed. “We’re up north. You could buy this entire village for the same price as some garden flat in London with an attractive postcode. If this place was really valuable do you think I’d be using it as a dumping ground for fuck-up writers who can’t honour a simple contract?”
“Don’t bother sugar-coating those thoughts. Tell me how you really feel.”
John parked outside the cottage. The building had only been visible in glimpses of headlamp beams as they approached but he could now see it was a majestic brownstone structure, set in its own grounds, with lights on in a handful of the windows. At one of the upper windows he thought he saw the movement of a figure, although he wasn’t sure if that was simply a trick of his imagination or a passing leaf shed in the early autumn fall.
As though reading the unease in his expression, John said, “The lights are on because Mrs Scum has been in here cleaning all day.”
John shrugged as he made his way to the rear of the vehicle and retrieved John’s suitcase. “That’s probably not her real name,” he called. “She’s the cleaner. I never bothered learning her real name. I figured Mrs Scum worked as a suitable nom de guerre.”
“Classy,” Ben muttered.
John made a sound of indifference as he hefted a suitcase and a rucksack from the boot of the car and dropped them by Ben’s feet. “Grab those and follow me,” he said, climbing the stairs that led up to the door. “Let’s get you settled in.”
Ben did as instructed and followed.
He watched John slip a key into the main door and then push it open. The scent of home-cooked food struck him as soon as he stepped inside. The fragrance was so strong and appetising he felt weak with hunger and angry at himself for being so easily won over by a mere aroma. He was salivating like a Pavlovian dog in a doorbell factory.
“Step inside,” John encouraged. He seemed either oblivious to the smell or spectacularly unimpressed. “Step inside and make yourself comfortable. You’re going to be here for a while.”
Scared? Intrigued? Want to read more? Then follow the rest of the tour this month!
Thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part on the tour and to Ashley Lister for the excerpt.
Doll House is published by Caffeine Nights and is available now.